Michael Dolan considers Sinn Fein’s surprising success at the Irish election last weekend.

Speaking on RTE News on Monday, two days after Irish voters headed to the polls in a general election, Mary Lou McDonald stated that “Sinn Fein won the election, I think everyone accepts that.” Yet, Just weeks ago, few could have imagined such a result. Sinn Féin secured 24.5% of the first preference vote, pushing the once dominant Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties into second and third place respectively. So, what could be behind the ‘Sinn Féin surge’? Has the party’s progressive brand of republicanism struck a chord with a new generation of voter, shocked by the ignorance of Irish issues in Britain laid bare by the Brexit saga? Or has Sinn Féin’s socialist message, which presents it as a real alternative to the centre-right status quo, reached out to voters desperate for change and a radically different approach to issues such as health and housing?

What is clear is that a quarter of the Irish electorate has not suddenly embraced a violent, republican ideology overnight. Whilst there is no escaping Sinn Féin’s bloody past and links with the IRA, it would be a mischaracterisation of the modern party to describe it purely on these grounds. RTÉ’s exit poll found that Sinn Féin was the overwhelming first choice of voters aged 18-25, most of whom were born after the IRA ceasefire in 1994. For these voters, its paramilitary links do not form a significant part of their image of Sinn Féin. Instead, the party represents a break from the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael duopoly which has dominated Irish politics since the foundation of the State. This generation is also the generation which saw its prospects shattered by the economic delinquency of Fianna Fáil during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ and subsequent crash. It then saw crippling austerity under Fine Gael as Taoiseachs Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar sought to rebuild a devastated economy. Referenda on same-sex marriage and abortion have also made it into one of the most politically engaged generations in Irish history.

Although Ireland’s economy is now thriving, the reality is that the younger generation of ‘Celtic Tiger cubs’ are not reaping any tangible benefits of this prosperity. Rents across the State, particularly in Dublin, are now amongst the highest in Europe, and the market is inaccessible even for well-paid graduates. Public services remain wildly understaffed and public servants underpaid, with pay rates not having been restored to pre-crash levels. 

Ultimately, we live in a society rather than an economy, so when we come to cast our ballot it is not the GDP that matters, but rather the figure on the bottom line of their payslip. It is no surprise that Sinn Féin has emerged as a beacon of hope for this forgotten generation, who view a vote for Fianna Fáil as a vote for Fine Gael and vice versa. This generation is once bitten twice shy when it comes to these two parties, and the absolute failure of Fine Gael to adequately address the housing crisis has served only to compound this frustration.

Nevertheless, the prospect of Sinn Féin leading the next Irish government is a troubling one. Despite the retirements of former IRA chiefs Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness from the party’s leadership in recent years, the party is not entirely detached from its past nor is it honest, let alone contrite, about it. Dessie Ellis, a Dublin-based Sinn Féin TD, served a prison sentence for possession of explosives linked to the 1982 Hyde Park and Regent’s Park bombings which killed 11 people. The Sinn Féin website, however, describes him as a ‘lifelong republican [who] was incarcerated for almost 10 years for his political beliefs.’ On Monday, footage emerged on social media showing Waterford TD David Cullinane shouting a slogan in support of the IRA shortly after his election. When questioned, Mary Lou McDonald, the woman-who-would-be-Taoiseach, simply smirked and dismissed the issue. Sinn Féin’s refusal to acknowledge much less condemn rather than ‘green-wash’ its past is concerning, but more disturbing still is the control exerted by the Army Council of the IRA over the party’s strategy.

Both An Garda Síochána, the Irish police force, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, agree that the Army Council retains oversight over Sinn Féin. So, whilst its rise is largely in spite of its odious past, the deeply unsettling consequence is that both parts of the country could soon be governed by a political party overseen by a terrorist organisation which has claimed thousands of innocent lives.